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Published — October 23, 2020

In North Carolina, court decisions favor voter enfranchisement

Still, voter-rights advocates fear counties may not follow decisions or state directives.

Introduction

North Carolina has been held up as a state with some of the most restrictive voting laws and rules. But voting rights advocates have had success this year in limiting efforts to erect barriers that disproportionately affect people of color.

In August, a federal judge ruled that many of the restrictions to voting will stand this election season. But in a win for voting access, the judge also ruled that the state must allow voters who submitted an absentee ballot with irregularities — such as a signature in the wrong place or no printed name for the witness — to be notified and given a chance to fix the problem. The ruling may save more than 100,000 ballots from being thrown out this year, voting rights advocates estimate. 

The ruling will particularly help Black voters, whose absentee ballots are thrown out at higher rates than white voters’, according to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. In the state’s March primary election, about 15% of all mail-in ballots were rejected. About 19% of ballots submitted by Black voters were thrown out — nearly one in five. 

What should also help reduce the rejection rate is a North Carolina State Board of Elections memo issued in August to county boards of elections that directs them to not verify signatures on absentee ballots because North Carolina law does not require it. At least 31 states match signatures to verify absentee ballots, with 25 of those giving voters notice of signature discrepancies and a chance to verify their identity so their vote counts.

The judge’s ruling and the board’s directive are significant in a state that pollsters rate as a toss-up between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. North Carolina is expecting 40% of all votes cast this year to be absentee ballots, compared with 4% in the 2016 general election. 

The lower rejection rate this year is also a result of stronger education efforts to inform voters on changes and a redesigned ballot, said Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan voting rights group. The organization, with the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, brought the lawsuit that resulted in the state being required to notify voters of irregularities in their absentee ballots.

“Signature verification is not the law in North Carolina,” Lopez said. The election board’s memo is “putting on paper that this is not a state where you should be looking at somebody’s signature and trying to compare it to what’s on the file.”

More wins

Among other victories voting rights advocates have tallied:

  • increasing the number of early voting places from about 100 in 2016 to about 400 this year;
  • a court suspension of a 2018 voter ID law that some argue disproportionately disenfranchises Black voters will not be resolved for this year’s election, so North Carolina voters will not be required to show a photo ID to vote;
  • a court ruling this year that allows North Carolinians convicted of a felony to vote in certain circumstances while on extended parole, without having to pay court fines and fees they may owe;
  • offering online voter registration this year for the first time;
  • providing a 17-day early voting period, which is close to the national average of 19 days;
  • allowing same-day voter registration during early voting, though not on Election Day (nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration before and on Election Day);
  • a state law passed this year that allows counties to begin processing absentee ballots on Sept. 29, weeks earlier than in previous elections, to make it easier to count the larger-than-expected number of ballots.

Extending absentee ballot deadline

One of the biggest wins this year — characterized as “huge” by the North Carolina attorney general — was an appeals court ruling this week that upheld the state elections board’s decision to extend from three to nine days after Election Day the time it would allow counties to accept absentee ballots, as long as the ballots were postmarked by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3. The board argued the extra time was needed due to concerns over slow mail delivery and the coronavirus pandemic. 

The three dissenting judges who voted to block the extension — all Republican appointed — wrote that extending the time to count ballots just two weeks before the election “would cause yet further intolerable chaos.” 

The judges urged the plaintiffs — which included Donald J. Trump for President Inc., the Republican National Committee and the North Carolina Republican Party — “to take this case up to the Supreme Court immediately. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Now.” The case has yet to be appealed.

Those who support the rules to verify ballots and a proposed voter ID law say they are needed to fight voter fraud. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Still some issues

Despite this year’s successes by voting rights advocates, they caution that North Carolina still has barriers to the ballot box and they worry counties won’t follow directives to make sure ballots are counted. Although county boards of elections are required to notify voters whose absentee ballots have problems, not all may comply, Lopez said.

The many changes to state voting laws has caused confusion, which may result in some voters’ ballots not being counted, Lopez said. In a single week this month, the Democracy North Carolina hotline received 3,000 calls from voters. In 2016, the hotline received 3,800 calls for the entire period it was operating.

Advocates also worry about voter intimidation at the polls. Lopez said his group has worked with other organizations to create a “festive atmosphere” at some polling sites to counteract any intimidation tactics. About 2,000 volunteers, dressed in yellow shirts, have set up tables with voter information and snacks. Some groups have played music. They are there to answer questions, Lopez said.

The state elections board is also trying to reduce tension at polling sites. It has directed county elections boards to ask sheriffs’ offices and police departments to not provide uniformed officers at polls, arguing it could intimidate voters. The North Carolina Republican Party called the directive “simply an impractical, dangerous attempt to appease the radical left,” according to a News and Observer report.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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